I’ve been glad of the chance to edit some of Ghetufool’s work lately. Writing is something I’m driven to by an impulse that won’t be denied. So what to do when writer’s block strikes? Turn to religion, I suppose, as people do when they feel vulnerable and melancholy. A fellow-blogger friend distinguishes the stratagem of “God is love” from the stratagem of “sex, drugs, hobbies, sports, money”. Yes, and if the chance arose today I’d gladly go and earn some money and find a day’s fulfilment there. Failing that, I’m tempted to finish the red wine, just to set my “artistic temperament” a-flowing. Still, I want to tackle religion, that honey-trap for the unwary, that bonfire of the sanities.
Oddly enough, over the last few days, wandering the suburbs under a cloudless sky, stopping to talk to ladies in their eighties tending their front gardens, letting the sweat dry on my cheeks, seeing the last of the cherry-blossom, pink as cotton-candy, fade on the ground under the trees—I have discovered I am on the side of religion: not against it as I carelessly thought.
I have certain religious beliefs of my own. 1) I should not disparage or praise anyone else’s religion. 2) I should not promote my own. 3) I should not disparage others for behaving contrary to my first two beliefs.
I have no other beliefs: not in God, Devil, Saviour, Commandments, Love, Enlightenment, sin, Heaven, any form of afterlife. I don’t disbelieve them either. Apart from the three listed above, I try and avoid beliefs altogether.
What is religion? I think it is the inbuilt urge to sacrifice and renunciation that arises in Nature. The gods must be propitiated. I learnt this long ago from a book, but I understand it now, not as an intellectual rationalization that some anthropologist might have deduced, but from my own case. When I feel life’s emptiness, I instinctively do penance.
Again I ask myself, what is religion? It is to give thanks and to beg for help. This is prayer. I don’t need any deity to whom to address my prayers. I find that within this human body the urge to pray comes naturally, without need for any particular theology.
What is my own religion? To get my bicycle wheels out of the tramlines. To untangle myself from other people’s reality, and face my own. My method is to immerse myself in nature: my common and individual human nature, as well as the ambient world as I find it. To untangle, I may argue against all ideas, all intellectual stuff: my own as much as everyone else’s. In my hierarchy of human wisdom, intellect is merely a tool, a servant: not a leader, prime mover, nor a generator of ideas.
The sweat dries unwiped on my cheeks. I pass a house I nearly bought last summer, with a beautiful view of the town. An old lady is tending her garden nearby and we have one of those conversations in which strangers compare their life-histories. I tell her I am from the valley below, from a little street cramped amongst old factories. She says she understands why I come up to the open view of the hills. I feel like Zarathustra, or Gibran’s Prophet. She is in no hurry to end our chat, but something persuades me to move on. I lie in a grassy meadow for a while, till a restless urge moves me on. (There’s a similar encounter the following day: a wonderful conversation with a woman in her late eighties, only three teeth left. Her husband comes over to join in and we discuss the state of the world, and agree on everything.)
This cloudless day! When I feel oppressed, I think of those who are more oppressed, and send out my thoughts to them like a swarm of bees to settle in their village and produce them some honey. This too is part of my religion.
If you can enter the realm of nature, you can escape the tramlines of everyday consciousness. My meditation isn’t to sit cross-legged concentrating on the breath in its journey through nasal passages and lungs. There are dangers in that. I did it for more years than I want to mention, emerging still sane—if I have the right to judge on my own case. The meditation was embedded in a religion whose basic tenets were (1) the superior enlightenment of its disciples compared with the rest of humanity, and (2) the hopelessly inferior enlightenment of the disciples compared to the teacher. Do you understand how potentially harmful that is? My teacher did not in fact teach. He was a revered figurehead who spouted generalities. I am lucky to escape unscathed, reflecting with Nietzsche that “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”. If he had actually taught, it might have been worse. Not that I blame him. He didn’t insist on me being a disciple. Why did I enslave myself like that? Same reason as the other disciples, I suppose. We were brothers and sisters, greeting each other in the Hindi equivalent of “hail truth, consciousness and bliss”. It wasn’t what I wanted but it was easier to fall in the trap than get out.
Nature is my religion now. In my body, my senses, the world around, my embracing of my home town, my beloved, my home. My years with a Buddhist-Hindu outlook reinforced the belief and practical experience that attachment to these things brings suffering. All can be taken away. I will die. But, I was taught, this human body is a most precious thing. All jivas beg for a human body. Man is the crown of creation. You might have been born as a pariah dog, or a worm. I don’t care, I embrace it all: the suffering and the joy. I shall not die to the world till I’m dead.
Why did I get caught up in all that Oriental religion? I never took to Christian belief, though at times I had to attend church twice on Sundays. Had I come across the right role-model, Christianity might have captivated me. The nearest I got to that was reading The Pilgrim’s Progress, aged 16. All my researches into Christianity have been secret. There must be a reason for that. I hated John Bunyan at first, coming across this hymn when I was 7:
Who would true valour see
Let him come hither
Here’s one will valiant be
Come wind come weather
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.
I didn’t like the tune, I didn’t like the word pilgrim, not knowing what it meant: it sounded grey and grim. I love it all now.
As I dictate these words into my recorder, the sun beats down from a cloudless sky. I had thought to sit on a bench in the back garden with a beer, but something in me desired penance and strenuous action—a pilgrimage of some sort. I see myself as a monk, striding among the Chiltern Hills, or at any rate these hillside suburbs. I discovered The Pilgrim’s Progress on a day like this. I was not solitary by choice then, just lonely, staying at my grandmother’s house. I had also been reading a book by Madame David-Néel* about Tibet, in which, dressed as a beggar woman, she had witnessed a lung-gom-pa, one of those “legendary lamas who by means of psychic training could rush nonstop across vast distances of rugged landscape, running without end.”
By that time he had nearly reached up; I could clearly see his perfectly calm impassive face and wide-open eyes with their gaze fixed on some invisible far-distant object situated somewhere high up in space. The man did not run. He seemed to lift himself from the ground, proceeding by leaps. It looked as if he had been endowed with the elasticity of a ball and rebounded each time his feet touched the ground. His steps had the regularity of a pendulum. He wore the usual monastic robe and toga, both rather ragged. His left hand gripped a fold of the toga and was half hidden under the cloth. The right held a phurba (magic dagger). His right arm moved slightly at each step as if leaning on a stick, just as though the phurba, whose pointed extremity was far above the ground, had touched it and were actually a support. My servants dismounted and bowed their heads to the ground as the lama passed before us, but he went his way apparently unaware of our presence. (Excerpted from this site.)
I mention it only because I twice at that age accomplished similar feats, quite spontaneously, or so it seemed to me at the time.
My true religion, now, at this time of life, is that of William Blake, as in his Proverbs of Heaven and Hell: not to renounce desires but to discover them, trust them, obey them. I don’t see a separation between body and soul. That is not a belief, but a fact, a perception.
I’m glad for this crude scribble, if only to bid good riddance to the writer’s block.
* A. David-Néel, Magic and Mystery in Tibet, 1956, pp200-204
The piece was reprinted in a magazine called Network at the invitation of Kathleen Fedouloff, who says “Serendipitously, he posted the entry on 9 May 2008, just as we were preparing our Spirituality issue for publication.”
It looks as though it was thoroughly read, which is true, but then it was used in lieu of a clipboard for years when scribbling on loose sheets.